BEHIND THE MASK
"Behind every mask, there is a face and behind that a story." - Marty Rubin
The uncertainty that we all had to deal with was tough - especially those first few weeks, when everyone was filled with anxiety, not knowing how long the lock-down and global pandemic would persist. However, we soon started adapting to a "new normal", and strove to find the best in a dire situation. I moved back home from Cape Town to Stellenbosch, the town I grew up in, to live with my family during the pandemic. I adored the new training environment since it resembled Kenya; being surrounded by beautiful mountains, endless vineyards, open grass fields to run on, and gravel roads in the farms and mountains gave me plenty of good places to train. Of course, I was no stranger to those routes, but there I was also privileged to have either my dad or younger brother, Frans, on the bike next to me, to make sure I was safe while logging the long marathon miles.
I started training hard, by increasing my mileage and doing strenuous workouts and tempo runs. I applied the training principles that I learnt in Kenya: running high mileage, never neglecting hills, and making sure those key, weekly long runs were present, alongside regular fartleks and quality speed-endurance sessions. I basically followed the training program template made by my Kenyan coach, Erick Kimayo, while adjusting it based on my new environment and my body’s response to the training. I also incorporated some of the knowledge I gained from previous coaches and from what I studied in the States, as well as the experience I have with what works best for me as an athlete.
I tried hard to stay focused on the only three things I knew I could control: my effort, mindset, and preparation. I kept hoping that I would be ready for the first race that came my way, but the months went by with nothing but cancellations and postponements. The training was a lonely endeavour - I missed being part of the running community. I started chasing down records and setting personal challenges or goals to chase together with my dad in training. We created our own mini-races along the way and, over the months, I ran multiple personal bests, in tempos and time-trials, that I never thought possible. However, my excitement didn’t last. Soon after achieving unofficial personal best times or running a solid workout or long run, I would feel incredibly low, realizing, in the end, that it was nothing more than another Garmin stat that doesn't really mean anything to the rest of the world. It kept me motivated to keep training hard, but it was tantalising to never toe the line at a real race while knowing that I was most likely in the best shape I have ever been.
In September, 2020, I got a strange, but interesting, opportunity to compete in the Chaski Marathon Relay, a virtual relay set up by the Athletic Brewing Co. I ended up being part of the winning team, JUSARSA, and ran the first leg of 19.2 km in 61:09 - which extrapolates to a 67:12 half marathon. American Lindsey Scherf ran the second leg of 12.9 km in 41:15, and Japan's Shiho Kaneshige clocked 34:41 for the final 10 km, for a total time of 2:17:05. The team won by 18 minutes. Although I never want to do a virtual race again, and the result will remain unofficial, at the time, this event showed me that the work I did in Kenya and following months of the pandemic was definitely paying off.
Another small consolation came shortly after, when I won the virtual Cape Town Marathon in October. I wasn't well tapered, as I only found out three weeks beforehand that it would be an official time on a measured course and was still running extremely high mileage when I decided to participate. Because of the limited opportunities at the time, I would have jumped at almost every chance I got to run an official event.
The day, however, was not an enjoyable experience, having to run all by myself in a looped course set up in Green Point, Cape Town, of which more than half was on cobblestones. The multiple sharp turns and mundanity of running that many circles on my old training ground definitely got to me by the end. I was also struggling with a lingering stomach bug that made me feel nauseous for the majority of the race. As early as 8 km in I started struggling to ingest my fluids and gels, and had to skip some, since the feeling progressively worsened. I struggled to eat for the rest of that day, and had extreme stomach pain the next day while receiving treatment for the stomach bug.
The time was not as fast as my fitness predicted or the qualifying time I was hoping for, but I lowered my official personal best to 2:33:35, down from my debut time set the previous year at the Sanlam Cape Town Marathon. I was happy and thankful that it was at least an official time - and an improvement, which is always the goal.
When restrictions finally loosened at the end of 2020, I returned to Kenya in November and was in the best shape of my life. I was ready to run a world-class marathon at the start of 2021, still hoping to gain my Olympic qualifier to the postponed Games of 2020. My opportunity never came, and I had to deal with the heartbreak, disappointment, and frustration of every cancellation and postponement, just like the majority of my fellow athletes around the world. We all kept hoping that the new year would be different, but there was, in fact, nothing magical about January the 1st, and when 2021 came the world was still fighting the pandemic and South Africa was still under strict lockdown regulations - yet another year filled with uncertainty, anxiety, doubts and fears awaited the world.
TO BE CONTINUED...